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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Writers Prize - Losing Your Head - by Sarah Crozier. Posted: Tue 29 Nov 2023.

WRITERS PRIZE: 29 / NOV / 2023
by Sarah Crozier

Earlier this year, Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum held an exhibition, Documentary Genealogies. Photography 1848-1917, that compared the rise of socialism and the development of photography. Among the many portraits of different social classes and 'types', one photograph stood out. A figure, whose head is out of the frame, stands naked but for some white stockings and a black shoe on the right leg, which is raised on a step. In the centre of the photo a small penis protrudes from a mass of dark pubic hair. The arms are crossed in front of the chest and the pose seems confident, almost daring. Has the head been cropped out to protect the subject’s dignity or ours, I wonder, allowing us to gaze pruriently at the diminutive genitalia without being watched back?

This photo immediately reminded me of the 'Headless Man' polaroid that turned an upper-class divorce into a scandalous media circus, when a photo of the Duchess of Argyll performing fellatio on an unknown man was produced in Scotland’s highest civil court in 1963. The photo was recently recreated with actress Claire Foy for the TV series A Very British Scandal, and an entire opera was composed around the incident by Thomas Adès in 1995. The careful framing of the photo, head out of shot, protected the identity of the man (the Duchess was identified by her jewellery), just as amateur 'dick pics' provide anonymity in the social media age.

The photo I am looking at is entitled Standing hermaphrodite and is by the French photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar. He’s best known for his technically innovative portraits that captured the personality of the sitters and his aerial photographs from hot-air balloons. It turns out that the Standing hermaphrodite is one of a series of nine of the same individual, commissioned by a hospital chief to be produced "with as much truth and art as you can". The sitter is nameless, anonymous though immortalised.

What is fascinating about this series is not the explicit views of the 'hermaphrodite' (as we know today, hermaphroditism is something that only appears in plants and animals – the subject is actually an intersex person) but how the different approaches to the head change the meaning of the images and our responses to them.

In all of the photos, the genitalia are in the middle of the frame. In some, the person wears a white dress, pulled up to reveal the unusual anatomy. In two, an external hand intrusively pinches and pulls to highlight the abnormality while the subject shields their face with an arm – seemingly in embarrassment or shame at the humiliating examination they are being subjected to. The head is always just out of focus, but the pained expression discernible behind the arm reminds us that we are looking at a person with feelings and emotions. It is to the head, not what is between the splayed legs, that our gaze is ultimately drawn.

There is one photo where the whole person is shown, wearing only stockings, giving the impression of being not so much naked but undressed. The face, long hair tied back, looks at the camera with a hesitant, sad expression. The body is slightly stooped, the head tilted. It succeeds in shaming the viewer for participating in this exploitative 'freak show' under the guise of art. Indeed, it seems that Nadar has captured here an essential truth, not about anatomy but about the public’s desire to look.

Looking back to the first, headless photo, I wonder if the same unhappy expression was once attached to it. It’s impossible to know for sure, although given the rest of the series it seems more likely than not. And yet looking at this pose, it gives us the possibility to imagine a sense of pride in the owner of this body – a kind of metaphorical sticking up of two fingers to those who behold it. There seems to be empowerment in this headless person that leaves them stronger for being anonymous. Just as with the Duchess of Argyll’s lover, all we are left with is speculation and a feeling of shame that we are looking at all.

Losing Your Head was shortlisted for the Source prize for new writing about photography in 2023.

About the Source Writers Prize ▸

Other articles in the ‘Writers Prize’ series:

Other articles on photography from the ‘Historical’ category ▸